by Walter Simmons
ELGAR: The Dream of Gerontius. Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Helen Watts, alto; Robert Lloyd, bass; London Philharmonic Choir; John Alldis Choir; New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. MUSICAL HERITAGE SOCIETY MHS-827246X (two LPs), produced by Christopher Bishop
The choral works of Sir Edward Elgar have not been absorbed into the mainstream international repertoire the way his orchestral works have, in recent years. The Dream of Gerontius, venerated as a classic in England, where choral music plays a central role, is still something of a rarity here. I have encountered a surprising number of aficionados of late-Romantic music who remain ignorant of this work, which Richard Strauss praised lavishly when he heard it in 1902. Elgar himself wrote, “This is the best of me,” and his esteemed biographer Michael Kennedy describes it as “wholly Elgarian in its fluency and its remarkable combination of grandiloquence, ecstasy, and intimacy,” while Sir John Barbirolli sensed that it was “written in a constant white heat of inspiration.” I myself am in the fullest agreement with these observations.
Probably its text and subject matter are responsible for its relative neglect in this country, as Cardinal Newman’s florid, elevated piety could hardly be less in keeping with today’s cultural climate. Concerning the journey of a dying man’s soul as it leaves his body and rises to face its judgment, in the company of a sympathetic Guardian Angel, who comforts it, discussing its fears and uncertainties, this dramatic poem was viewed as anachronistic even when it appeared in 1865. Dvořak had intended to set the poem, but reconsidered in light of its controversial content. Elgar’s decision in 1898 to use it as the subject of a major work signified a public assertion of his own Catholicism, which had until then been a source of discomfort and embarrassment for him.
In music, however, religious sentiments that blaze with mystical fervor are usually more compelling than those (e.g., Brahms’ German Requiem) that are diluted by detachment and apologetic rationalism. The intensity of Elgar’s conviction results here in a work of consistent exaltation, nobility, and spiritual beauty, a work in which vocal solos, operatic in their melodic immediacy, are masterfully integrated with spacious choral writing and majestic but dignified orchestration. The sheer musical interest is so high that the work’s two long, unbroken sections, which treat this rarefied spiritual content with little contrast in pace or mood for more than 90 minutes, never lapse into dullness.
There have been four stereo recordings of Gerontius, all originating in England: one, from 1965, featuring tenor Richard Lewis and mezzo Janet Baker, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, at one time issued on Angel SB-3660, and still available from England as EMI SLS-770; London 1293, released in 1972, featuring the late Peter Pears and Yvonne Minton, and conducted by Benjamin Britten; CRD 1026/7, released in 1977, with soloists Robert Tear and Alfreda Hodgson, and conductor Alexander Gibson, available for a few years as Vanguard VSD71258/9; and Boult’s 1976 recording, still in print as EMI SLS-987, but newly reissued in Musical Heritage Society’s easily accessible, bargain-priced, no-frills packaging (though with Michael Kennedy’s informative liner notes intact).
On the occasion of the Vanguard release in 1980 I compared all four versions (see Fanfare 3:5, pp. 74-76), finding the most satisfactory to be those conducted by Boult and Barbirolli. Both conductors had the benefit of close personal association with the composer’s own personal interpretation of the work. This is not necessarily an unqualified key to musical understanding, but in this case, at any rate, seems to have left the two with a more sympathetic attitude toward the work. Of the two, Boult’s recording is the more polished in almost every respect and is thus probably the more appealing to the casual listener: Nicolai Gedda offers the best Gerontius of all of them—the only one not disfigured by vocal flaws and mannerisms. Moreover, Gedda is the only one to imbue Gerontius with the human, flesh-and-blood quality distinctly indicated by Elgar. Robert Lloyd offers stunning renditions of the two bass solos, while Helen Watts is a fine, musically sensitive Angel. In addition, the sound quality is the best of the four, with a fullness and spaciousness that do justice to superb orchestral and choral performances.
However, there is one unfortunate liability with this performance: the conducting of Sir Adrian himself. Although Boult is held in high esteem by many, my own admiration for him is limited to his bringing to the public so many of the glories of the 20th-century English orchestral repertoire—the music of Vaughan Williams and others. Indeed, I believe it is his almost exclusive association with this repertoire that is largely responsible for his high reputation. But I have always found him to be quite a dull, pedestrian interpreter, with very little to contribute in the way of musical insight. In those cases, as in Gerontius, where he attempted to offer more than a purely literal reading, the results could be awfully insensitive, with misgauged tempo modifications that distorted the work’s dramatic topography. Weaknesses of this kind are especially destructive to the impression made by an unfamiliar work as they may easily go unnoticed, their consequences attributed to the work itself. For this reason, I urge listeners to seek out the Barbirolli recording, at least as a second version. Here despite dated sonics, mediocre orchestral playing from the Hallé Orchestra, and a strident, sibilant (but musically intelligent) Richard Lewis, one encounters a deeply sensitive, profoundly loving conception. Barbirolli’s phrasing is meticulous, projecting the impact of the work with awe-inspiring eloquence. Moreover, with no slight intended toward the artistry of Helen Watts, Yvonne Minton, or Alfreda Hodgson, who grace the three other recordings with exceedingly fine renderings of the role of the Angel, they must all bow before Janet Baker (who, in a radio interview, aptly cited this recording as one of the greatest achievements of her career). Her incandescent portrayal offers a warmth and intimacy that becomes a true embodiment of the almost maternal devotion suggested by Elgar’s music.
So we are left with two almost complementary mixed blessings that, admittedly, create a problem for the listener contemplating a single version of this masterpiece. (I would recommend going for both of them.) One more warning must be raised regarding this MHS reissue: The surfaces of my review copy were quite poor; listeners with reasonably sensitive equipment are advised to proceed with caution.